“You can't have peace, you can't have stability, you can't have security in the Middle East without weakening the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Monday.
A wing of Iran's armed forces, the IRGC was founded after the 1979 Islamic revolution. Besides operating within Iran, it handles international military activities via its Quds Force branch.
The move to classify the official military power of another country as a terrorist organization is an unprecedented move by the U.S.
In doing so, it brought together Iranian politicians from across the political spectrum to renounce the decision. They retaliated by designating parts of the U.S. military as “terrorists” in return, and passed a bill that gives the Iranian military more leeway to confront American troops in western Asia.
Iranian political parties ranging from hardliners, led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, to moderates and reformists, led by President Hassan Rouhani, have bandied around the IRGC.
“America plots against the IRGC, Iran and the revolution in its own fantasy, but such evil acts will backfire,” said Khamenei in a meeting with a group of IRGC members and their families on Tuesday, according to a report on his official website.
Iranian President Rouhani also stood by the military organization, despite his cabinet’s roots in the moderate and reformist parties, and his record of criticism against the hardliner-backed IRGC on domestic issues.
Rouhani denounced Trump’s administration for “demonizing the IRGC” and said it was America’s “attempt to cover up its failures versus the Iranian people,” Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported on Tuesday.
In his cabinet session on Wednesday, Rouhani described the IRGC as the “defender of freedom and security of the region,” IRNA reported.
Relations and uncertainty
Although Iran and U.S. relations have been strained for the past 40 years – since the Iranian revolution – the legal implication of this announcement from the Trump administration has concerned Iran-watchers.
Richard Nephew, principal deputy coordinator for sanctions policy at the U.S. Department of State from 2013 to 2015, does not think expanding pressures on IRGC is the “main goal” of the new designation, but rather an attempt to further sever the relationship between the two countries.
“I think the actual main goal is to make it impossible for the United States and Iran to negotiate in the future,” Nephew told ABC News. “It certainly increases the chances of an accidental conflict,” he added.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was the first government official who reacted to the IRGC’s terrorist designation, asking President Rouhani on Monday to add U.S. Central Command, known as Centcom, to Iran’s terror list, according to IRNA.
The suggestion was welcomed by Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, the general staff of the Armed Forces, and Iranian Parliament.
Zarif had worked hard on finalizing the nuclear deal during Obama’s administration in the hopes of improving the country’s international relations. His efforts were voided after President Donald Trump withdrew from the multilateral deal in May of 2018.
Iran’s parliament prepared a bill on Tuesday to declare certain U.S. forces as terrorists.
“All U.S. military, security and intelligence forces active in West Asia and all real and legal persons representing them in the West Asia region will be declared as terrorists,” the bill reads, the semi-official Fars News Agency reported on Tuesday.
After passing the bill, parliamentarians wearing IRGC’s uniforms in an act of solidarity shouted, “Down with America!” IRNA reported.
“This is the same IRGC that everyone [in Iran] was attacking a few months ago. But now, all are supporting it,” Hosein Kanai Moghaddam, political expert and former IRGC commander, told ABC News.
“No one has ever served the IRGC at home more than Trump did,” he added.
Repercussions on the ground
To Abbas Abdi, an Iranian journalist and authority on political reform, the idea of Iranian political parties unifying against foreign threats might work for a while, but not forever, adding that Trump’s unpredictability leaves no room for certainty.
“Obama’s pressures were internationally understandable and at the same time they would leave some room for agreement… But it is hard to predict the future of such unity with Trump, as it is hard to understand his thoughts,” Abdi told ABC news.
Ideas contrary to the political establishment have a hard time gaining traction in Iran’s tightly controlled state media landscape.
Some dissenters have turned to social media platforms instead, refusing to support the IRGC, even when it has been threatened by the Trump administration.
Twitter user fereshteh wrote: “I wish the money taken out of our pockets spent on the IRGC and its allies gaining power in Syria and making chaos in the region would be spent inside of our country. Then, nobody would call them terrorists and we could also feel they prefer love of their country rather than the #love_of_power.”
In terms of the potential financial consequences of the IRGC's new terrorist designation, some experts think it will have little economic impact.
“I think that those still doing that business -- and there are precious few non-Iranians willingly doing it -- will not be swayed by these sanctions,” Nephew told ABC News.
The questions remains, however, how IRGC forces and U.S. forces will respond to each other if they are operating in the same area.
“I hope that U.S. and Iranian commanders exercise restraint and care,” Nephew said.
Afshin Abtahi contributed reporting